Aug 27, 2012

At The Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

At The Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

In At The Mouth of the River of Bees, Small Beer Press collects Kij Johnson’s deservedly acclaimed short fiction, which has been published in various magazines over the past two decades. I’ve been a big fan of Johnson’s writing for a number of years, so it didn’t at all surprise me that these short stories were so remarkably good. But At The Mouth of the River of Bees made me appreciate her range as a writer in a way I hadn’t before: the eighteen stories collected here are, as Ursula K. Le Guin so well puts it, all “differently excellent”.

There are two things I particularly appreciate about Kij Johnson: the way she writes about gender and the way she writes about animals. The latter is perhaps best illustrated in stories such as “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”, “The Evolution of Trickster Stories among the Dogs of North Park after the Change”, “Wolf Trappings”, “The Horse Raiders”, and the story that gives this collection its title (but of course, to say they are only about animals would be incredibly reductive). I have written about the first two stories in the past, and I still stand by everything I said then. These stories are heartbreaking without being one bit sentimental; they’re full of tenderness, but also willing to address the power differential inherent to our relationship with domesticated animals. Johnson writes about this power gap, and the emotional and practical complications that derive from it, better than any other writer I’ve ever encountered. I can hardly describe the effect these stories have on me: they make me want to curl into a tiny little ball and cry for hours, except that sounds like a bad thing and I mean it in the best possible way.

When it comes to gender, Johnson is excellent at addressing troubling power dynamics, the difficulties in communication that result from fixed gender roles, and the many different ways in which women are othered – all with incisiveness, subtlety, and sometimes even with humour. I think these themes work even better in her novels, as there’s more room for them to breath and for their full complexities to emerge, but there’s still much about the stories collected here that’s challenging, smart and insightful. Speaking of Johnson’s novels, there are two stories here, “Fox Magic” and “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”, that are the germ of her novels The Fox Woman and Fudoki respectively. While I still prefer the novels (which I really can’t recommend highly enough), I very much enjoyed reading these shorter versions.

“My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire” was for me one of the most surprising stories in this collection, as the voice is unlike anything I’d see Johnson do before. The full title (“My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire—Exposition on the Flaws in My Spouse’s Character—the Nature of the Bird—the Possible Causes—Her Final Disposition”) should tell you that it’s written in a mock Victorian style: the narrator, a pompous gentleman with a very high opinion of his own intellect but whose failures of insight are glaringly obvious to the reader, tells us about the passing of his wife and of her return to life in the form of a bird. Here are the two opening paragraphs:
My wife seems returned to me as a solitaire: a great ugly mean-spirited bird; feathered and stubby of physique; with a great bulging beak, a surly mien and an omnipresent squawk. To deny so unnatural a fact would be a comfort; but a sensible man faces difficult truths.

Having accepted so extra-ordinary a change, her new form is unsurprising. She was ever a squat, awkward woman; resentful in nature; recalcitrant as to a wife’s right duties of acknowledging her husband’s sovereignty and holding household to his general betterment; and importunate in her demands regarding that amative act that leads to the wife’s other great labor, the bearing of progeny.
As you can tell, there’s casual misogyny in spades in his narration, but the story goes on to subvert it and at the end of the day the joke’s on him. But what impressed me about this story was the fact that it’s not just a darkly funny tale about a sexist Victorian gentleman whose wife manages to escape his control. I really enjoyed the humour, but the story is ultimately more sad than anything else. What I was saying about Regeneration the other day goes for this story too: it exposes the trappings of a damaging gender ideology in such a way that you end up feeling sorry for everyone involved.

The gorgeous and metafictional “Story Kit” is about a writer trying to cope with the ending of a relationship through her writing, and also about Dido and Aeneas and loss and grief and trying to survive. It’s about the limitations of words; their inadequacy; the fact that they barely scratch the surface of the unspeakable – and yet we keep trying to get them to do more, because sometimes they’re all we have. An excerpt:
Not Medea’s frenzy, not Ariadne’s broken thread. Anna under the train’s wheels. Butterfly holding the wakizashi to her breast. None of the betrayed women, that commonest story of all.
Not even Troy itself and all its deaths: the bitter seige, and ten years from home, Penelope’s tears and the Trojan women’s torn breasts and Iphigenia’s sacrifice, the ruined towers, the blood dried to dust on the golden stones; the anguish of Paris; Aeneas’s pain—even these cannot contain her rage, her loss.
Words fail.
And then there’s “Spar”, which is such a difficult story. I’ve reread it a couple of times ever since it was published at Clarkesworld Magazine, and it surprises me that I keep returning to it even though it makes me so uneasy. But then again, it’s supposed to. The story – about a woman and an alien trapped in a small shuttle having sex, after a collapse in space that killed the woman’s partner and perhaps also someone the alien loved – is claustrophobic in the extreme. A piece of fiction is always about many things, some of them entirely brought in by the reader. I don’t believe in one to one allegorical correspondences between stories and the real world, but when I read “Spar” – with its acute sense of entrapment, and above all its protagonist’s utter inability to communicate; her dawning realisation of just how impossible it is that she’ll be heard – I can’t help but be reminded of the experience of being a woman in certain contexts of this world.

Finally, the Hugo nominated novella “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is every bit as gorgeous as everyone had told me. It is, most of all, a story about change. Kit Meinem of Atyar comes to a small town at the edge of the Empire he serves to build a bridge across the mist. The river of thick mist, in which terrifying creatures known as the Big Ones move, can only be crossed at certain safe times. Rasali Ferry belongs to a family that has been reading the signs of safety for many generations, and yet even then the Ferrys die young. The novella follows Kit and the townspeople for a number of years as the bridge is built. And if you didn’t think that a story about how a great construction project can irrevocably change a small town could be this moving and full of humanity, you clearly haven’t read Kij Johnson yet.

At one point, we are told how Kit feels about his work:
All public work—drainage schemes, roadwork, amphitheatres, public squares, sewers, alleys and mews—was alchemy. It took the invisible patterns that people made as they lived and turned them into real things, stone and brick and wood and space. Kit built things that moved people through the invisible architecture that was his mind, and his notion—and Empire’s notion—of how their lives could be better.
But of course that the clash between his notion (and Empire’s notion) and people’s notions of how their lives should be shaped creates tension. What I loved the most about “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” was that it never went for the facile. It’s not an “Empire entirely bad, traditional way of life entirely good” type story; but rather a story about the endless complications change brings with it, about the loses and the gains, about the challenges of carving a new space for yourself in a world that will inevitably become a different place, and about how all of these things affect individuals and social groups alike.

These are only a few highlights – as I said, the stories in At The Mouth of the River of Bees are diverse, and they each showcase Johnson’s amazing skills as a writer in a different way. Comparisons are often reductive, and I realise than in reality her writing is entirely different from that of the two authors I’m about to name, but I’d venture to say that if you like Kelly Link or Margo Lanagan’s short fiction, there’s a good chance these stories will appeal to you.

Kij Johnson’s writing is sometimes elegant and graceful; sometimes deliberately raw. These stories range from the human to the frightening to the complicated to the self-referential to the moving, and some even manage to be all these things at the same time. At the Mouth of the River of Bees is an excellent reminder of what short fiction at its best can do.

Some of the stories in this collection are available for free online, so if you want to get a taste of Johnson’s writing, just follow the links.

Reviewed at: SF Signal

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I received a review copy of this book via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.


  1. Reading about this book makes me want to use it for my lit course. It sounds like "something they have never read which they really should" which is going to be my new criteria for new Lit books.

  2. All of these stories sounds so emphatically emotional, yet, somehow not. I couldn't ever express it the way that you did, and I am eager to give this book a try. I need a book of short stories that not only challenges me, but changes me, and I think this is one of those books that would do that. Supremely awesome review today!

  3. Oh this sounds good! Going on my library list right now.

  4. I have wanted to read something by Kij Johnson for absolute ages. I listened to one of her short stories (the one that leads to Fudoki) and have wanted to read her novels since then. Now I think I might try more of her short stories as well. Thank you for the reminder. :)

  5. I've read a few of Johnson's stories, and her Fox Woman, loved them all. Such a great writer.

  6. Wow -- this is quite a post! I ordered this book for my library, and I'll be grabbing it for myself (at some point, once I let the patrons have it first). :)

  7. Can't wait to get my hands on this one!! I have it preordered…just have to wait for it now :p If it's half as good as The Fox Woman, I know I'll be in love. The only experience I have with her short stories is Ponies which I absolutely loved. Sounds like the rest were just as good if not better!

  8. I like the sound of that Victorian woman! I'm intrigued about the way Johnson handles the relationship between humans and animals, how you explained it. Thanks for the links!

  9. Hi, Ana (?),
    Small Beer Press asked me to write a review for this terrific collection - I'll be sure to let you know when it's posted somewhere. I'll be sure to credit/mention your blog review. Well done, and let me echo your enthusiasm. A hearty DITTO!

  10. I ordered Fudoki for my daughter, who is going to get to meet this author on her spring break, and now I'm eagerly anticipating the U.S. release of this volume of stories, too! In the meantime, thanks for the links.

  11. I read (and reviewed) Kij Johnson's story, Ponies, a while back. It was fantastic. I'm excited to see a collection of her short fiction.

  12. There are a few (but not as many as I'd like) writers whose short stories feel like taking a warm bubble bath in words. (Yeah, I'm not sure that analogy works?). I'll have to give Kij Johnson a try.

  13. Oh Ana, this was definitely one of those not so rare reviews of yours that just leaves me craving more. Yes, craving the book, but also craving more of you talking about it.

  14. I read Johnson's short story, Ponies, and loved it so much. I'll pick this collection up the second it's out here in the States. Great review.

  15. I love Kij Johnson's writing, especially The Man Who Bridged the River of Mist. The Fox Woman is stunning. Looking forward to reading more.

  16. Well, I clearly need to add Kij Johnson to my TBR list! I wonder if this would be good to do via audiobook. My attention often wanders for audiobooks and maybe the key is to listen to short stories instead of long non-fiction depressing tales... :-)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.